With the exception of a few free agent signings, the summer was pretty quiet for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Off the ice there was one significant organizational. In May, the team announced that the Kalamazoo Wings would be their new ECHL affiliate. The K-Wings join the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL as the organization's official affiliates.
Formerly aligned with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Wings were looking to partner with a new NHL franchise. The Lightning, having dissolved their relationship with Florida Everblades in 2015, were searching for a team to help develop some of their prospects outside of the AHL. Thus, it was a perfect match.
The current iteration of the Kalamazoo Wings has been in the ECHL since 2009-10. In those seven seasons they have been to the playoffs six times, making it all the way to the Kelly Cup Finals in 2010-11 before losing to the Alaska Aces.
Kalamazoo is about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of Detroit. The team plays in the Wings Event Center, a 5,113 seat arena built in 1974. The building underwent a $2 million renovation in 2012, highlighted by a 40’ video board over center ice. In a bit of ironic foreshadowing, this happened to be the same year the Lightning installed their over-sized video screens. As of now there is no Tesla coil in the Wings Event Center...
In preparation for their upcoming season, Raw Charge reached out to Joe Roberts, who handles public relations and is the voice of the Kalamazoo Wings. He was kind enough to answer some questions via email.
Raw Charge: It’s been about four months since Kalamazoo and Tampa Bay announced their affiliation. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since the partnership?
Joe Roberts: It’s impossible to ignore the influence that the Lightning have had since the affiliation agreement. Our head coach, Nick Bootland, was able to get to their rookie camp and learn a lot about the organization from the top to the bottom, and I know that he was grateful for that opportunity. As the NHL continues to influence the ECHL and vice versa, a solid affiliation deal is more important than ever.
Not only did Coach Bootland get to experience the rookie camp, several of the K-Wing players spent time in training camp. While the chances that a player like defenseman Sean O’Rourke plays for the Lightning are extremely slim, it’s a tremendous benefit to his development to see what a NHL training camp is like.
RC: As an affiliate it seems that there are some extra hoops to jump through to put a roster together. For instance the Wings traded Adam Phillips for Nicola Riopel who is under contract to Syracuse/Tampa. It seems to be an organizational move more than a “best for the Wings” kind of move. Can you elaborate on how much influence the parent clubs have on roster moves?
JR: The parent club influence in the ECHL is a bit more heavy-handed among some teams than it is for others. When it comes down to it, each team has a handful of affiliate players that they're expected to develop, and put into successful situations. But, the rest of the roster is built through is an autonomous process for the ECHL coach/GM. There are certainly quirks when it comes to rules about contracts, rights, and so on, but if you're not going to be flexible and adapt in this league, then you're not going to make it!
Currently the vast majority of the players on the team are not under contract to the Lightning or the Crunch. That could change as the relationship grows and in the past Tampa Bay has relied heavily on its ECHL affiliate to fill gaps in the AHL level. They have also used them to find playing time for some of the prospects facing a log jam at their position (think of goaltending a few seasons ago when there were multiple players looking for ice time).
RC: The Wings have made the playoffs three straight seasons. What are the expectations for this season?
JR: The fans in Kalamazoo expect this team to win. Not only does the organization take pride in developing players and pushing them up the ladder to the AHL and NHL, but it's an organization that has always been driven by championships, and this year is no different.
It’s great to build success at an early level. If you have affiliates that win, it breeds an expectation in the players that success is the norm and they carry that throughout their development. As far as players who are pushed up the ladder, current Syracuse Crunch Yanni Gourde spent 2013-14 in Kalamazoo scoring 34 points in 30 games.
RC: What style of play does coach Nick Bootland espouse?
JR: Aggressive. Aggressive. Aggressive. If you're going to play for Nick Bootland, you better be ready to skate hard, play a 200-foot game, and battle for your teammates.
Sounds pretty familiar to the Coach Cooper/ GM Steve Yzerman philosophy of hockey. Play hard up and down the ice and wear down your opponents.
RC: Affiliate night is scheduled for December 10th . Anything special planned for that game? Are there any other promotion nights that fans should look forward to?
JR: Affiliate night is something we've never tried before. We're hoping that it is going to be a very special promotion. We will be wearing TBL themed jerseys for that game, and the Hockey Hall of Fame will be down in Kalamazoo with mobile exhibits and trophies for fans to interact with. We want to pay tribute to the relationships that have been built and strengthened between the ECHL and NHL.
As far as other promotions, of course there's great ones! Our 36th annual World Famous Green Ice Game takes place every year on St. Patrick's day. It's EXACTLY what it sounds like. Green-dyed ice, specialty jerseys, and of course, green beer! The rest of the promos are on our website, and there are some great ones in there! It's part of the fun of minor league hockey.
They also color the ice orange (Halloween), pink (Princess Pink Night), and on January 29th the fans can paint the ice any way they would like on Paint the Ice Night. They will also have Star Wars, Superhero and Pokemon Go themed nights throughout the year. A full listing of their promotions can be found here.
RC: Can you think of one “weird” story or moment from the history of the Kalamazoo Wings that you think Lightning fans should know about? (along the lines of the Weird History Series that Puck Daddy ran this summer)
JR: Funny enough, it revolves around the world famous green ice game. It started in 1982 and, back then, the science behind dyeing the ice and inserting in-ice logos wasn't finely tuned like it is now. So when they first dyed the ice, they did it with food coloring, not realizing that it wouldn't freeze!
The PR guy behind the move, Stephen Doherty, said: “I’ll never forget that first game. There was green water all over and Muskegon’s Stu Irving was skating in on a breakaway in the second period. He got to the top of the circle, hit a water spot and kept going, but the puck didn’t. The green puddle saved us. We had shamrocks made out of cardboard, and they formed air pockets and started coming up. By the end of the game, the uniforms were all green, but we filled the arena and the K-Wings won."
That would have been an interesting game to watch.
RC: There is a rumor that Kalamazoo is a pretty good town for people who enjoy beer. Can you confirm or deny that fact? Also, what should Lightning fans coming to Kalamazoo to watch the Wings know about the town?
JR: A good town for people who enjoy beer? No! A great town for people who enjoy beer. There are countless local breweries that have some of the best pours and food around. If you're going to come to Kalamazoo, leave some room to fill up on the incredible food and beer. And if you're going to visit, say hi to people! There's a great community feeling about this city, and just about everyone who lives here is proud to do so.
Fans interested in following the Wings can follow them at their:
Official Website: kwings.com
Their Facebook Page: The Kalamazoo Wings Hockey Club
The season kicked off on October 14th with a 3-1 win on the road against Norfolk. Their home opener is set for October 21st against Fort Wayne.